Doris Lessing

On Cats

“All people who live with animals have moments when they long to share a language.”

Is it a cruel irony that Doris Lessing (October 22, 1919 –November 17, 2013), a woman who famously abandoned her own young children for fear of a life trapped in motherhood, was to spend her life caring for cats?1

Photograph of Doris Lessing and her cat, 1950. Featured in Doris Lessing's "On Cats" in the Examined Life Library.
Doris Lessing and friend, 1950.

Or perhaps it is a gift that this woman, this Nobel Prize–winning author who so understood humans at their most complex levels, was able to apply the same insight to cats.

Oh cat; I’d say, or pray: be-oootiful cat! Delicious cat! Exquisite cat! Satiny cat! Cat like a soft owl, cat with paws like moths, jewelled cat, miraculous cat! Cat, cat, cat, cat.

She would ignore me at first; then turn her head, silkily arrogant, and half close her eyes for each praise-name, each one separately. And, when I’d finished, yawn, deliberate, foppish, showing an ice-cream pink mouth and curled pink tongue.

On Cats is a collection of various essays Lessing wrote on the matter of cats. Her cats. Her varied, wonderful, lifetime’s collection of cats.

From the swarm of feral-turned-domestic cats that grew out of hand on the farm of her childhood to a few particular sorts she housed in London, there have always been cats in Lessing’s life.

As George Mikes so trenchantly observed in his classic satire, How to Be A Brit, the English and their pets have a particular relationship. There is a deep, abiding selfless love. Owning pets makes parents of us all—perhaps why we are so devoted to it.

Morse and Lewis and Mum. Featured in Doris Lessing's "On Cats" in the Examined Life Library.
Morse and Lewis and Mum. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

On the day of the birth she was in labour for three hours or so before she knew it. She miaowed sounding surprised, sitting on the kitchen floor, and when I ordered her upstairs to the cupboard she went. She did not stay there…

I took her up, and made her stay in the cupboard. She did not want to. She simply did not have any of the expected reactions. In fact, she was touching, absurd—and funny, and we wanted to laugh. When the contractions grew strong, she was cross. When she had bad pain towards the end, she miaowed but it was a protesting annoyed miaow. She was annoyed with us who concurred with this process inflicted on her.

Morse at home, used in "The Animals Among Us"
Morse. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.
In his masterful collection of feline-inspired verse, T. S. Eliot claimed that all cats had three names. One for the humans, one for the stature, and one that only the cat himself knows.2

In On Cats, Lessing seems to oblige the cats in their naming. Grey cat -despite tremendous personality- is nonetheless, Grey cat. She also owned a El Magnifico and my favorite, Rufus the Survivor, a stray that came to love and be loved.

The hot weather ended and it began to rain. The orange cat stood out in the rain on the balcony, his fur streaked ark with running water, and looked at me. I opened the kitchen door and he came in. I said to him, he could use this chair, but only this chair; this was his chair, and he must not ask for more. He climbed on to the chair and lay down and looked steadily at me. He had the air of one who knows he must make the most of what Fate offers before it is withdrawn.

Barbara Hepworth and cat, Nicholson
Barbara Hepworth with her cat Nicholas and “Curved Reclining Form,” 1961. Photograph by Ida Kar. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

On the storytelling, Lessing doesn’t stray far from the cats, their antics, habits, births, deaths, and ultimately strategies for life. But underwriting all of these intimate portraits is a person who, like many pet owners, seeks to cross the divide of language and experience to commune with cat.

I sit down to be with him, it means slowing myself down, getting rid of the fret and urgency. Human and cat, we try to transcend what separates us.

Lewis. Featured in Doris Lessing's "On Cats" in the Examined Life Library.
Lewis. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Like Eliot who believed cats have a language to themselves, a name they never reveal, Lessing wrote: “All people who live with animals have moments when they long to share a language.”

Crossing that divide of understanding is one of the great human endeavors, whether we seek a key to life, to the unknowable divine or simply long to commune with things that warm us on cold nights and return to us from afar.3

“Rum Tum Tugger is a Curious Cat…” Illustration by Edward Gorey.

Accompany this deeply human study of particular cats with the new science on how pet owning makes us human or Mary Oliver’s melodies of love for our most beloved companions, written in the same open-hearted language as Lessing, a language of love as pure as any.

Illustration of Doris Lessing.